The Chicago Symphony has chosen Riccardo Muti as its next music director — or, it might be better to say, Muti has chosen it. Reports from Andrew Patner and John von Rhein suggest that the maestro forged an unusually strong bond with the great Chicago ensemble during a concert series and European tour last fall. While I've had mixed impressions of Muti's conducting over the years — sometimes he achieves searing intensity, sometimes icy perfection — I expect that some spectacular concerts are in the offing. One thing I like about Muti is that his repertory choices are unpredictable. In recent concerts he's presented Prokofiev's Third Symphony, Hindemith's Nobilissima Visione and Sancta Susanna, Nina Rota's Piano Concerto, and his beloved Scriabin. He was scheduled to lead the Copland Third at the New York Philharmonic in March before withdrawing because of flu. He programmed a fair amount of new music while at the Philadelphia Orchestra: Berio, Ligeti, Ralph Shapey, Steven Stucky, Christopher Rouse, and Richard Wernick. I hope he casts his net even wider in Chicago.
When the New York Philharmonic picked Alan Gilbert as its next music director last summer, it also named Muti to an untitled role as a frequent guest conductor; he was expected to lead six to eight weeks of concerts per season. Dan Wakin reports that Muti plans to reduce that commitment (the conductor says he never agreed to a specific number of weeks), and that the guest role will end when he arrives in Chicago in 2010. Zarin Mehta, the Philharmonic's executive director, understandably describes that outcome as a "disappointment." I'm puzzled, though, by Wakin's assertion that the news from Chicago has generally "dampened spirits" at the orchestra (there are more details in a follow-up piece today). I see no reason why this should be so. Muti is a brilliant conductor, but he's hardly the last of the greats. I personally dreaded the idea that Philharmonic would hire him full-time, and was pleased when they went with Gilbert instead. After two music directors of the elder-statesman type, it was time for a younger leader, one alert to the challenges and opportunities of presenting classical music in modern America. Mehta says as much in both Wakin articles. In fact, Gilbert now has more room to make his mark, without the shadow of a jet-set celebrity conductor hanging over him. You won't need a Guerrieri diagram to keep track of the hierarchy. Chicago seems to have different needs at the moment, although I join Joshua Kosman in wondering about the long-term wisdom of their approach. Incidentally, Chicago has never had an American-born director, although Theodore Thomas, the orchestra's founder, came to this country when he was ten.